WACO, Texas — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unleashed another wave of lawsuits against school districts over their masking policies — but one of them says it doesn’t even require face coverings.
Midway Independent School District is a Waco-area district that sits on a list compiled by the attorney general’s office of school districts and counties that have flouted Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban and put in place their own mask-wearing orders.
The hitch? Midway ISD doesn’t mandate that students, teachers, school staff or visitors don masks while on school premises, a district spokesperson said Wednesday. Midway officials have tried to convince the attorney general’s office the district doesn’t have a mandate — but to no avail.
“We have not received information of why or how we are considered out of compliance or considered for a lawsuit,” district spokesperson Traci Marlin said in an email.
The Midway school district is among nine that Paxton announced on Tuesday that he is suing for allegedly defying Abbott’s executive order banning public schools and local governments from enacting local mask mandates.
Under Midway’s virus protocol, campuses can issue 10-day “mask directives'' that encourage mask-wearing on the premises if virus transmission reaches a certain level — but doesn’t require it. The attorney general’s office pointed to that protocol as the basis of its lawsuit against the district but declined to answer other questions from The Texas Tribune.
Those directives are not the same as mandates, Marlin said — and in one case, such a directive successfully cut down the number of active cases on a campus.
“Directives are not enforced,” she said. “There are no punishments or repercussions.”
McGregor Independent School District, another district near Waco, did require mask-wearing if virus transmission became too severe but, at Paxton’s request, did not enforce the mandate, Superintendent James Lenamon said in a statement.
Nonetheless, Paxton sued the district.
“The district is disappointed that the AG has decided to sue anyway,” Lenamon said.
In an attempt to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 among schoolchildren too young to get vaccinated, dozens of school districts across the state and several large counties have required mask-wearing in some form despite Abbott’s order.
The Texas Education Agency isn’t enforcing Abbott’s ban — and Paxton and Abbott have argued in court they have no power to punish those who disobey the governor.
In addition to McGregor and Midway, Paxton announced lawsuits against seven other districts Tuesday: Diboll, Honey Grove, La Vega, Longview, Lufkin, Paris and Waco school districts.
Last week, Paxton sued six districts — the first time he had done so since the dispute between the state’s Republican leadership and local officials began in August.
“There will be more to come as lawlessness continues across the state,” Paxton’s office wrote in a tweet Tuesday afternoon.
Already, Paxton has notched at least one temporary victory against a school district — winning an order in Lamar County court blocking Paris Independent School District’s mask mandate for the time being.
Paris ISD officials had taken the novel approach of requiring students to wear masks as part of the dress code — which the district’s general counsel Dennis Eichelbaum credited with keeping absences related to COVID-19 low.
“Thank goodness we have the attorney general to come to our rescue,” Eichelbaum said.